Rethinking Europe’s Early Modern Islamic Legacy

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There is, in our time, a tendency to think of the historical interaction between Islam and Christianity in terms of conquest and religious conflict.

This, to some extent, is the idea behind some of the more common social and political reactions to Muslim immigration – and in particular the challenge posed by the arrival of refugees – and behind the debate on their impact on fundamental European values.

However, this view is not shared by many of the researchers studying the relations between different religions and cultures in Europe, whose analysis reveals, by contrast, that for centuries, the situation was far more nuanced and complex, and not governed by confrontational parameters alone.

A much-studied legacy without a global European interpretation

In the last thirty years, studies on the historical interrelationships between Christianity and Islam in Europe have undergone exponential growth. As a result, today we are better acquainted with the cultural and trade networks, and with the land and sea routes by means of which a significant series of people, knowledge and objects reached the Old Continent from the Islamic shores of the Mediterranean and the Balkans.

Research on these issues has proliferated across diverse geographical areas – the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Central Europe and the Balkans, and islands of the Mediterranean – but it has done so in an isolated fashion, with the focus on local history rather than on the broader geographical perspective. In this respect, the academic distance between Central/Eastern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, for instance, is particularly marked.


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This lack of a global interpretation is particularly relevant because it has hampered recognition of the truly European nature of Islam’s presence on the continent, which in turn has helped to fuel certain preconceptions in present-day society regarding the historical relationship between Islam and Christianity.

Aware of the importance of reversing this situation, and bearing in mind the cultural and political crossroads Europe is currently traversing, a group of more than 150 researchers from 38 European and Mediterranean countries are taking part in a Cost Action, entitled Islamic Legacy. Narratives East, West, South and North of the Mediterranean (1350-1750).

This project is based on a series of research topics linking the historical past in different regions of Europe, with a view to reconsidering and taking a new approach to pre-Modern societies.

Rethinking relations with Islam

In contrast to the more usual generalisation whereby the political and cultural relations between East and West are perceived in terms of alterity, real historical research demonstrates that the shaping of such opposition over the centuries was not in fact always so clear cut.

Certain historiographical tendencies have sought to depict Christian and Muslim societies as antagonistic, and as two opposing models of life and thought that existed in a continuous state of conflict. Texts and images have often been analysed in a biased manner or out of context, considering only one side of the picture, namely that of supposedly dominant Western culture.

Today’s society, for instance, has partially taken on board stereotypes arising from the pens and brushes of writers and artists of the medieval and modern worlds. These portrayed Muslims as dark-skinned, turban-wearing individuals whose wicked actions contrasted with the moral rectitude of inevitably white-skinned Christians, resulting in a form of pre-racism. These notions, accepted for years and questioned in only a very superficial manner at certain points in history, need to be reviewed in the light of critical research into the sources containing Islamic images and text.

The Mediterranean as a porous border

Many of the approaches that insist on the antagonism between Islam and Christianity, as if they were two separate societies, are based on an understanding of the Mare Nostrum more as a barrier between Europe and North Africa than as a space of exchange.
Fortunately, this tendency has been changing in recent years. Biographies of captives, Conversos and slaves, in addition to the study of trade in textiles, books and other objects of art or everyday artefacts, reveal the intensity of the contacts that took place between the shores of the Mediterranean, with thousands of people, objects and ideas circulating at any given time.

When considering Islam in Europe, the very concept of border needs to be reviewed. Maps define lines that separate territories according to political, cultural and religious distinctions that do not always correspond to reality, and which changed over the centuries. We therefore need to take a fresh look at the concept of geographical boundaries as a representation created to establish distance, but which in fact operated dynamically, as a permeable space of contact.

Museums setting an example

In recent years, European museums are adopting a new approach to the way in which they organise their Islamic art collections and present them to the public. Examples include the British Museum, the Gulbenkian in Lisbon, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid, the Louvre, the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin and the Benaki in Athens, to name a few.

In some cases, visitors, for instance, have encountered new narratives which seek to transmit the interrelationships between diverse cultures and religions more appropriately.

This renewal has also reached traditional artistic categories such as “Christian art” and “Islamic art”, which are no longer understood as two alternatives or clearly differentiated styles, each arising out of its own tradition, but instead as living, changing entities, each drawing on the other. Hence, academic debate is now turning to analysis of the interaction between East and West, and to showing the history of contact rather than only that of confrontation.

The development of projects like the Cost Action mentioned above seeks to create an academic critical mass on a European scale to build bridges between essential research and cultural institutions. It aims to encourage European society to reflect more consciously on the phenomenon of Islam’s presence in Europe, as part of the shared history of our continent.

European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST)

Header Image – Detalle del mapa de Europa en el Atlas Catalán, de Abraham Cresques, 1375.

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